John's World: 'LED' Me Gently Home

November 12, 2011 07:56 AM

John PhippsIn the words of the philosopher Aristotle, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the flashlight." Or maybe it was Gandalf. Regardless, these were, until recently, words to live by for those of us often in the dark.

Living at the end of lengthy wires strung delicately on tall poles that deliver the electrons of enlightenment, farmers have routinely battled periods of unscheduled darkness. In virtually every rural kitchen was a drawer containing the emergency flashlight(s)—along with keys from cars long since traded, rubber bands from the mail and half-used tubes of Super Glue.

In the moments right after power failure, family members could rush to the drawer in full confidence that a flashlight would be there. Few of us entertained any illusions that the instrument would work, but there was something reassuring about the heft and solidity of the standard two-cell torch.

The devices were ingenious in their simplicity and utility. With just a few parts that were accessible, flashlights seemed foolproof, but they contained one flaw: They usually didn’t work.

Longer life. Almost all of us have disassembled a flashlight by feel in the dark, swapping D cells frantically to find two that would give enough of a flicker to allow us to check the sump pump. It became a math problem: How many combinations of batteries are there (X) in the total number of batteries (Y) piled on the table? Since the effort was done blind, getting two good ones from even just three choices could take a half-hour. And that’s assuming the bulb was OK.

Batteries had a half-life of about two days when used in vehicles, as well. Changing a tire in the dark was often preceded by 10 minutes of unscrewing the springy end of the flashlight and the lightbulb, along with repeated switch flicking, capped off by gentle thumps against your hand or a nearby boulder. Often, brief spurts of light would encourage us to continue this electrical CPR long after the patient was inert.

In addition, old batteries, when they did work, inevitably failed just at the crucial moment. This fact is well documented by numerous "B" horror films involving teenage girls in nightgowns inexplicably entering dark attics/cellars while the entire audience murmurs, "You idiot!"

Moreover, size was a subtle status symbol when it came to flashlights. With clearly Freudian overtones, police lights became 9-cell clubs, instantly conferring authority and adding yet one more burden to overloaded belts.

But these happy memories are soon to fade, I fear, with the breakthrough of LED, or "light-emitting doohickey," lights. Thanks to LED lights, the D-cell battery might soon be a cumbersome memory, like bag cell phones.

The genius of the LED is that it uses a minuscule amount of electri-city—about the amount generated by rubbing two kittens across a pair of corduroy pants. This allows portable lights to be powered by teensy AA and AAA batteries, or even the $265 battery in your iPhone.

Currently, LEDs are hideously expensive, and economists tell us that they will remain so until current inventories of old-style incandescent bulbs are exhausted. Then LED prices will drop so low that Texans will clamor for them to be mandated.

This quantum leap in efficiency thus makes possible the neglect of emergency lighting on a scale in line with our attention span. I have personally grabbed a midget LED flashlight that had lain ignored for three winters in a combine and had it work!

Best of all, since they can be powered by mini Tootsie Roll batteries, new applications become feasible. One of my favorites is the headlight. Not to be confused with automotive headlights, these forehead flashlights are becoming essential for older eyes. I wear mine everywhere, dispelling shadows and blinding other movie-goers when I look at them.

Consequently, instead of drawers full of obese D cylinders, we have 100-packs of AA and AAA replacements. In fact, I can envision slim batteries being stored in fashionable bandoliers like Mexican bandits used to be depicted with. For today’s totally connected crowd, a loss of power is a loss of personality.

This is the "bright" in our "bright new future" that will doubtless be overpromised during the current election system. Not that things will get better, necessarily, but, thanks to the LED, we’ll be able to see exactly how bad things are.

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